A graphic to illustrate best and worst communications measurement of 2020.

Charles Dickens wrote this in 1859, but he could have said it about the past year: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”

Here’s our pick for the best and worst of time for communications measurement for 2020:

The best of times…

Yes, despite the dumpster fire that was 2020, there were great measurement moments. Some of them we told you about in the last issue. Some we reported over the year as we highlighted the excellent measurement programs of our monthly Measurement Mavens. Overall, I have to point out that in certain ways 2020 was quite good for research and communications measurement.

People still need to know

Over the years I’ve survived a few economic recessions and hard times. Graduated college in the middle of one (1974), tried to find a job during several, started new companies in two of them.

In every other recession, the budgets for PR and communications were the first to be cut. Sometimes research and evaluation continued, since people needed to prove what was working or not.

This time around, given the rampant uncertainty of a new disease, constantly changing regulations, and universal societal anxiety, research has been having a pretty good year. Most of my friends in the survey business have been very busy trying to help their clients figure out how customers and employees really feel about all this change.

The charthrobs

Thanks to the brilliant visualization folks at MSNBCThe New York Times, and the like, more people have been studying data and looking at charts and graphs than at any other time in our history. That is, in general, what we here at Paine Publishing encourage.

What’s even cooler is that data geeks like Steve Kornacki and the two Nates (New York Times’ Data Dude Nate Cohn, and FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver) have become celebrities. Even Kornacki’s khaki pants became famous. Which is great because, just as Dr. Anthony Fauci has inspired a host of potential new med students, we’re hoping that the Nates and Kornacki will inspire a new generation of data geeks!

Online everything

The move to online everything has been both good and bad for measurement. Good, in that people have had to measure what they were doing, because they’d never done most of it before. Also good because virtual town halls and conferences offer a ton of opportunities to collect more and better data and learn from it.

And, the fact that so many people have been spending so much more time online means that online data — from sources like Google Analytics, e-mail metrics, and online surveys — has become far more representative of the populations we try to measure.

The downside has been that the lack of in-person face time makes it harder to brainstorm and find consensus on metrics. More and more of these problems will be solved as we get increase our expertise with online meetings.

Speaking of online meetings… Here at Paine Publishing we have produced two regular conferences for many years:

We moved both of these online this year (quite successfully, we are proud to say), and the process taught us a great deal about what works and doesn’t for online events. (Now is the perfect time to give yourself or a friend the gift of measurement knowledge with our Winter Session 2021 Base Camp.)

Parts of our government did actually do their jobs

Some of the most amazing data processing we’ve ever seen was done by thousands of poll workers and local government officials around the country. All the more amazing, in fact, because their efforts were despite the attempts of some government figures to actively subvert them.

As a former poll worker myself, I can testify that vote counting is an incredibly tedious, labor-intensive process that every municipality must go through. In the 2018 election, I personally reviewed and hand-counted some 600+ ballots to make sure that nothing was missed. That’s in a town of about 5000 voters. I can’t imagine what the task must have been like in Milwaukee, Detroit, Atlanta, or Phoenix. So it was something of a data miracle that it all went off without any real problems, despite conspiracy theories to the contrary.

Another bright light, despite our worst fears, was the completion of the U.S. Census, and how well measured its communications efforts were.

PR becomes a little more diverse

Diversity has been an important topic of nation-wide concern this year, and PR has made an effort in the right direction. To its great credit, PRSA devoted probably half of its four-day ICON conference to discussions, awards, and celebrations of diversity. For the first time in the decades I’ve been a member, I actually feel like PRSA and the rest of the PR world might be getting a little less white. It’s long overdue.

New technology

There were a few glimmers of measurement hope on the technology side:

  • CapeStart’s crisis program is truly one of the best new technological developments in measurement of the last decade.
  • In October, Google began to roll out Google Analytics version 4 (GA4). It promises to bring better metrics to all of us who understand that integrating web analytics with communications efforts is the new normal.
  • Proof Analytics has always been on the forefront of communications measurement. By teaming up with Supermetrics this year it’s become even easier to bring your data into the system and use it.

New research

And there were examples of great, worthy, and important research, like the Rand Corporation’s “Trends in Income From 1975 to 2018,” a study of economic inequality in the U.S.

We wish we could point out some brilliant marketing successes fueled by good measurement over the past year. But most people were just trying to figure out how to get a press release approved — while making macaroni and cheese for a 4-year old, convincing the dog to be quiet during a staff meeting, and substitute teaching in the kitchen-cum-classroom.

The worst of times…

The 2020 election tumult and the COVID crisis may have done more damage to the public’s trust in data and science than any other year in history.

Government efforts to undermine data and science

The egregious actions of science-skeptic governors and federal officials like Donald Trump and Kevin Hassett have done incalculable harm to people’s lives and public health. We’ll never know exactly how many thousands of people got sick or died from the myriad of bad COVID decisions made by American government officials at all levels. We named them our 2020 Measurement Menaces of the Year. Under any circumstances, blatantly manipulating and fudging data is egregious, but only in 2020 did it actually cost lives.

We are proud to note that some people have resisted political pressure, including Rebekah Jones, our 2020 Measurement Maven of the Year.

Faulty election polling, again

Along with a slew of unfounded conspiracies, this year’s election brought another measurement failure in the form of 2020’s election polling. We named the polls one of our Measurement Menaces of the Month, as we did four years ago as well. In 2016 the problem was one of under-sampling of populations, specifically rural, less educated voters. This year the problem was simply not being able to reach enough people to make the data a representative sample. Lack of response to polling calls drove pollsters to conduct mathematical acrobatics to come up with their conclusions. Which, once again, proved wrong.

How can you use your data when there’s nothing to compare?

And finally, let’s get back to the nuts and bolts of doing good measurement. One of the worst things about this past year is that it has been so off-the-charts unusual that in a lot of cases it will be tough to use data to make comparisons to any “normal” year. For instance, how are you going to productively compare this work-from-home year’s internal comms data to any previous year? Well, sure, you could compare “number of online meetings” this year to last. But the difference and cause will be so huge and obvious that, really, where’s that going to get you?

good example of this came across our desk just the other day. The research shows huge increases in online shopping metrics, this year to last. But the pandemic has been such an extreme boost to online activity that what useful trend or forecast can come of any comparison?

The article goes on to conclude that “[Online shopping] presents a massive opportunity for e-commerce platforms and merchants to look for ways in which they can continue to attract and engage customers remotely.” Well, sure. We’d hate to have to stand up in the board room and justify the cost of that research.

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